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Russian forces stepped up their onslaught on Ukraine’s Donetsk region on July 3, shelling the key city of Slovyansk after claiming earlier in the day to have taken the entire territory of the neighboring Luhansk region.

Slovyansk Mayor Vadim Lyakh reported in a Facebook post that his city had been hit by “shelling from multiple rocket launchers…the heaviest for a long time.”

“There are 15 fires. Many dead and wounded,” he added.

After failing to take the capital, Kyiv, Russia revised its military focus on Ukraine’s east with the goal of capturing the Donbas, which is composed of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

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Slovyansk, which had a pre-war population of about 107,000, has long been a focal point of Moscow’s territorial ambitions in the Donetsk region. It was captured by Russia-backed separatists in April 2014 but retaken by Ukrainian forces three months later.

Parts of both the Luhansk and Donetsk regions have been under the control of pro-Russia separatists since 2014, when Russia also invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, a move not recognized by the rest of the world.

Early on July 3, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to President Vladimir Putin that the Russian military had taken the entire territory of Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region, the Russian Defense Ministry said, according to TASS.

Russian state media quoted Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov as saying, “Russian troops…are fighting inside Lysychansk, completing the defeat of the encircled enemy.”

Serhiy Hayday, the pro-Kyiv governor of Luhansk Oblast, wrote on Telegram that Russian forces “are gaining a foothold in the city.” Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said late on July 2 that Russian forces had created “a threatening situation” in the city.

Russian troops have blasted Lysychansk with rocket and missile attacks in the past several days, and the latest fighting comes a week after the fall of its sister city, Syevyerodonetsk, just across the Siverskiy Donets River. That city had been reduced to rubble by Russian forces prior to the takeover.

Also on July 3, the governor of Russia’s Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine near the city of Kharkiv, said at least three people were killed and numerous buildings damaged overnight in the regional capital in what a senior Russian lawmaker called “a direct act of aggression on the part of Ukraine.”

In a post on Telegram on July 3, Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov reported numerous explosions in Belgorod, a city of some 400,000 people about 40 kilometers north of the border with Ukraine. He said at least 11 apartment buildings and 39 detached houses were damaged or destroyed in the overnight incident.

At least four people, including a 10-year-old child, were injured, Gladkov claimed.

Russian Federation Council lawmaker Andrei Klishas directly blamed Ukraine for the purported incident.

“The death of civilians and the destruction of civilian infrastructure in Belgorod are a direct act of aggression on the part of Ukraine and require the most severe — including a military — response,” Klishas wrote on Telegram.

The claims of the Russian officials could not be independently verified, and Ukraine made no immediate response. Videos posted on social media purported to show explosions and fires in the city.

The same day, the governor of Russia’s neighboring Kursk region, which also borders Ukraine, wrote on Telegram that “our air defenses shot down two Ukrainian Strizh drones” during the night, adding that there were no casualties in the incident. Unverifiable video posted on social media purported to show a large plume of smoke near the city of Kursk.

There have been numerous reported incidents of fires and explosions in Belgorod and other regions since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, but Kyiv has not claimed responsibility for any of them.

The report from Belgorod comes as the Russian military has stepped up missile attacks across Ukraine. Thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed and millions displaced since the war began, although Russian officials have denied targeting civilians.

Ukraine on July 3 claimed it carried out dozens of missile strikes against a Russian military base in the occupied southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol. Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov posted on Telegram from Ukrainian-controlled territory that the base had been “taken out of action.” He added that partisan action had derailed a Russian military train carrying ammunition outside Melitopol on July 2.

Russian media quoted a Russian-appointed local occupation official as saying two missile strikes had been recorded in the city overnight and that there were no casualties.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, TASS, and dpa

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